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Brain cells that give humans higher cognitive abilities than other animals are also linked to neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and epilepsy, new study finds
- Scientists have been looking for what in the brain gives humans higher cognitive abilities than other animals
- A Yale team analyzed brain cells from humans and primates
- They found five that are unique to humans, most notably a brain immune cell
- This cell is also linked to neurological disorders, but experts say it may give us our abilities
Scientists have identified an immune brain cell unique to humans that gives us higher cognitive abilities than other animals, but what makes us special also makes us vulnerable to neurological disorders like schizophrenia, autism and epilepsy, a new study finds.
A team of Yale neuroscientists analyzed cells in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the region involved in executive control functions, which is shared by humans and primates, and narrowed it down to just five found only in the human brain, including an immune cell called microglia .
Helping to maintain the brain rather than ward off disease, microglia contains a gene not present in primates and associated with neuropsychiatric diseases.
Lead author Nenad Sestan stated that “we can see the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as the core component of human identity, yet we don’t know what makes it unique in humans and what sets us apart from other primate species.”
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Scientists have long been looking to discover what in the brain gives humans higher cognitive abilities than other animals. A Yale team says they found clues in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — a brain immune cell
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is charged with task switching and reconfiguration, interference prevention, inhibition planning, and working memory
Microglia is present from development into adulthood, but scientists suspect it affects vulnerability to certain psychiatric disorders as individuals age through adolescence.
“Comparative studies suggest that human neurobiological development is unique,” the team said.
“Humans, for example, differ from other primates in that they prolong a rapid fetal brain mass growth rate into the first postnatal year, achieving a relatively large adult brain size.”
The team found that the prefrontal cortex is present in humans and primates
The team analyzed more than 600,000 cell groups from the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in both primates (pictured) and humans. The results showed that a single immune cell tasked with the maintenance of the human brain may be involved in our high level of cognition
However, they wanted to find clues to what gives us higher cognition.
The team looked at more than 600,000 single-nucleus transcriptomes from adult humans, chimpanzees, macaques and marmosets in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC).
This led them to identify which cells are unique to which species.
‘We humans live in a very different environment with a unique lifestyle compared to other primate species; and glial cells, including microglia, are very sensitive to these differences,” Sestan said in a. pronunciation.
“The type of microglia found in the human brain may represent an immune response to the environment.”
When the team analyzed the microglia, they discovered the presence of the gene FOXP2 and its variations have been linked to verbal dyspraxia, a condition in which patients have difficulty producing language or speech.
Other studies have also shown that FOXP2 is associated with other neuropsychiatric diseases, such as autism, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.
Sestan and colleagues found that this gene shows primate-specific expression in a subset of excitatory neurons and human-specific expression in microglia.
Shaojie Ma, a postdoctoral fellow in Sestan’s lab and co-lead author, said in a statement: “FOXP2 has intrigued many scientists for decades, yet we had no idea what makes it unique in humans versus other primate species.
“We are extremely excited about the FOXP2 findings as they open new avenues in the study of language and disease.”